She lost her job in the pandemic. She can't even afford the dollar store to feed her kids

When Lauren Bell lost her high-paying job because of the coronavirus pandemic, she found herself in a position she never thought she'd be in.

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Alaa Elassar
CNN — When Lauren Bell lost her high-paying job because of the coronavirus pandemic, she found herself in a position she never thought she'd be in.

The dollar store is the only place with food this single mother of two from Lake Worth, Florida, can shop. Those are the good days.

The bad days are when she's so penniless that she has no choice but to pilfer items.

"There's been multiple times where I had to steal food, no matter how bad that sounds, just to make sure my kids can eat," Bell, 23, told CNN. "Sometimes there's just nothing else I can do."

Bell is matter-of-fact and open as she speaks about hunger. Because it is her reality.

And it is the reality of millions of families with children across the country in this pandemic era.

Right now, one in three families with kids in the US are experiencing food insecurity. That's double the rate since 2018, according to a new analysis from The Hamilton Project, an economic policy initiative that offers proposals and policy options.

It's higher than levels of food hardship among children at the peak of the Great Recession.

"Food security means families don't have sufficient food to provide an active and healthy lifestyle, but most importantly it means they don't have sufficient resources to go out and purchase more," Lauren Bauer, a fellow at The Hamilton Project, told CNN.

"While food insecurity always rises when there's an economic downturn, what is shocking about it this time is that it's disproportionately affecting families with children and children themselves."

Children in low-income households are facing the brunt of the effects the pandemic has had on food insecurity because they were once dependent on school to provide them with two meals a day.

Many schools across the country are back in session -- but remotely.

"These families are stressed, and it is incumbent upon Congress to target these families as they continue to look at the next round of Covid-related assistance," Bauer said.

School meals are not enough, parents say

Erin Bailey, another single mom of four in Florida, lost her job due to the pandemic and has been relying on her children's lemonade stand and her GoFundMe campaign to make ends meet.

Months behind on rent and bills, Bailey said the government and local officials have done little to provide support to families like hers.

The Pandemic-EBT program, which provides low-income families with money to replace the free or reduced-price meals their children would have received in school, ends on September 30 unless extended by lawmakers. Yet many families, including Bailey's, say they need more than that to put food on the table.

"The food stamps aren't enough. We run out of them so quickly," Bailey told CNN. "Even the meals they got from school weren't enough to keep any child fed. Usually it's a bun and a slice of meat and cheese on it, maybe a box of raisins. It's great, but it's not enough to keep my children full."

Some children don't even qualify for assistance

For Bell, every attempt at getting help has been met with rejection. Children under the age of 5 who were not in school did not receive any food assistance from the Pandemic-EBT program, meaning her 8-month-old and 2-year-old daughters didn't qualify.

"I got denied for the EBT program because my kids weren't in school, just in daycare," Bell said. "I only got WIC, and the one stimulus check. My application for unemployment has been pending for months. Our lives are nothing but stress."

Both mothers say they have resorted to skipping daily meals to make sure their children are always fed. Bell, who was laid off from a data entry job, lost nearly 20 pounds in the past two months from her irregular diet.

Ramen noodles, eggs, milk and plain pasta have become both family's meal staples. Proteins like beef, fish and chicken have become luxuries neither family can afford.

"It feels like us single parents are on a sinking ship without life boats, and there is nothing more we can do but hold onto something while the ship goes down," Bailey said. "It makes you feel beyond helpless when everything you tried and all the assistance you tried to get ended up getting you nothing."

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